Emotional, detailed but ultimately every bit as infuriating as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “To Die in Jerusalem” clearly makes its point about the endless cycle of death and anger but, finally, achieves nothing. At times, in fact, it feels as if a grieving mother is being manipulated to serve the film’s ends, seeking a confrontation with the mother of a suicide bomber that killed her teenage daughter. Although those twin stories help put human faces on the tragedy, the words of a family friend linger when he asks the Israeli mom, “What will you gain from this?”
Rachel Levy was just 17 in 2002, when Ayat al-Akhras, a year older, detonated a bomb in a Jerusalem supermarket, killing them both as well as a security guard. The young women’s images landed on the cover of Newsweek, providing a powerful symbol of the ongoing struggle’s toll.
Haunted by the event, Avigail Levy labors to arrange a meeting with Ayat’s mother, Um Samir al-Akhras, apparently hoping to gain a measure of closure and inspire her maternal counterpart to denounce her daughter’s murderous actions.
It is, of course, a futile quest, as the Palestinian woman and her husband repeatedly discuss being “victims of occupation,” justifying resistance. Along the way, filmmaker Hilla Medalia chronicles a culture that exalts martyrdom and can rationalize senseless violence against their oppressors, a sentiment echoed from school children to an imprisoned 27-year-old woman whose attempt at a suicide blast went awry.
These moments add texture to the situation’s intractable underpinnings, but Medalia keeps returning to Avigail’s dubious crusade, which drags on — through various fits and starts — over four years. Not surprisingly, when the encounter finally occurs, it is almost totally anticlimactic, and one can only wonder to what extent the filmmakers inspired her to continue pursuing an exchange that will so transparently fail to deliver any satisfaction.
HBO has frequently exercised admirable restraint in dealing with painful and compelling subject matter, but the nagging sense here is that after spending so long following Avigail on her journey, the producers were duty-bound to see it through until the end.
Given the platitudes that regularly surround discussion of the Middle East, there’s always room for projects that view the turmoil with perspective, exposing the deep-seated hatreds and lack of trust that have consistently thwarted peace efforts.
Ultimately, though, “To Die in Jerusalem” merely rehashes that dynamic through the prism of two simple women who — given the film’s outcome — would have been better off left to grieve in private.